It was 84 degrees yesterday in Archangel, Russia, at the edge of the Arctic Circle. That’s about as warm as our pool this May morning in central Florida. It’s Sunday. I woke up to a continuing Facebook argument about Donald Trump’s nationalism. Over two cups of coffee I read a couple of chapters from a snarky book called A History of the End of The World. Then I hopped into the warm pool to play catch with Bilbo Augustus Baggins, our Schnoodle, the world’s greatest dog.
Now it’s time for church. I became a Presbyterian about twenty years ago, and as a tribe we aren’t really into the end of the world. It’s not our thing. That’s one reason I like being a Presbyterian. We’re the frozen chosen. We’re all about keeping the temperature down.
But in my dreams I return to the fever swamps of End Times prophecy. I find myself drawn to dispensationalist eschatology in much the same way I enjoy documentaries about Bigfoot and UFOs. When LuAnne catches me furtively flipping the channel to Jack Van Impe on a Sunday morning, she walks out of the room in disgust.
. . .
I was twelve when Dad took me to see Apocalypse Now. That was remarkable in a church that strictly forbade R-rated movies. But somehow Dad determined that Apocalypse Now had moral and artistic value that superseded the rules of God’s One True Church. There was that lesson from Colonel Kurtz about the madness and futility of war. The vivid images offered a foretaste taste of Armageddon. And thanks to Hal Lindsay we understood that Apache helicopters were the flying locusts of Revelation.
Who knew that the end of the world would be so thrilling. And what a treasure for a seventh grader at our little church school. I regaled my classmates with stories of breathtaking battle scenes — a helicopter attack choreographed to Wagner! — forbidden language, dark humor, and unspeakable gore. And surely I must have recounted the memorable scene when the Playboy bunnies appeared out of the night sky riding on the skids of Huey choppers. A revelation indeed.
The real apocalypse loomed large and was always just a newspaper headline or a sermon away. Any day we could expect to wake up and discover that the European Union, whose ten nations were the prophesied resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire, had started World War III. A final unholy emperor would arise — one likely candidate was Otto von Habsburg — and lead Europe and Germany as it enslaved the United States and Britain and sent its subjected people to concentration camps.
(Here’s a strange memory, almost too bizarre to be believed: One afternoon Otto von Habsburg, the supposed Beast of Revelation himself, took a tour of the publishing department of the church’s considerable printing operations. I worked there after school, running a stat camera for my father’s art department. Von Habsburg had been invited to speak at the church college, and this was part of his campus tour. He seemed doddering and out of place as his retinue was ushered through the halls of the facility. I recall feeling sad for him. Did he realize we thought he was the Beast of Revelation?)
I grew tired of the apocalypse a long time ago. LuAnne says she can’t stand the book of Revelation, a startling admission from an otherwise evangelical Sunday School teacher.
I flit back to the headline in MSN about the temperature in Archangel. It’s 30 degrees above the average. And 18 of the hottest years on this planet have taken place in the last 19 years. My reflex is to dismiss it as the same old fear-mongering, this time from the godless left-wing media and their so-called facts. Surely the thermometers at MSN can’t be trusted. Too bad Hal Lindsay or Jack Van Impe didn’t find global warming prophesied in the Book of Revelation.
I’ve been reading Maccabees, too. As I read I wonder if the liberal Hellenists turned to MSN and Vox, while the Zealots got their news from InfoWars and Breitbart. Count me instead with the poor Essenes, hiding in their caves, contemplating the end while perfecting the art of imaginative apocalyptic literature. I’m with those fellers.
My Presbyterian Pope, Tim Keller, says the Day of the Lord is the day on which all things are ordered at last around the Lord of Creation. The day is coming when all injustice and wickedness is overcome, when everything and everyone who is broken is healed. The day when Jesus promises to make all things new. And the apocalypse, the unveiling, is a glimpse behind the scenes to the spiritual reality, the cosmic battle, that has always been present but unseen.
. . .
Today is a new morning. In one of my periodic fits of discipline, I woke before dawn. I have a back brace on, and I’m walking toward the sunrise on 31st Street. I begin to pray as a reflex, but I wonder whether it’s merely self-talk or some fear of silent contemplation. With some effort I stop the words in my head and observe the moment instead.
It’s a quiet quiet morning. There are beads of water the cars, the streets are wet, and there is a mountain of mist overhead. Up ahead, over the small hill, a wisp of clouds is lit up pink against the blue sky of dawn. I crest the hill and see the sun coming up in the distance.
It’s as if a switch has been flipped. Suddenly the mist overhead is lit up in soft pink and then yellow. As I walk, I see the lawns in front of me, fences and walls back-lit with soft light.
I can’t keep the words out my head for long. I pray through the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven. I think of Karl Barth’s doctrine of radical transcendence. We are the hollowed-out crater that remains after an encounter with the Lord, he says. Nothing in ourselves, just the empty place of encounter. Just the void where once again he creates ex nihilo.
I see the earth tilt toward the sun, a ball flying through endless space. I think of the Lord of Heavens and Earth, Creator of All Things. This is yours, and not mine, this day. All things come from you, all things return to you. It is your glory and pleasure. Vast, unmeasured, boundless. You alone are free. And who am I? (Thou knowest. Thou alone.)
I pray the Lord’s Prayer to give structure to the chaos in my mind, to fight my doubts with ritual. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Your will is that none should perish. The lion should lay down with the lamb. Every man should sit under the shade of his own fig tree. None shall make him afraid. (And where is your will being done? Where is the promise of your coming?) Your will is that the hungry should have food, the homeless find a home, the fatherless a family. How far we are from that. From holiness. How far I am from that. Restless, pouting, irritated, anxious, greedy. Counting my dollars, calculating my debt.
I’m halfway through my walk. I turn back and see the cars with headlights on and windshield wipers moving. The clouds have shifted east and north, and the rain is coming. A few drops, then suddenly more. Now I am in a shower of raindrops, turned golden by the light of dawn.
Give us this day our daily bread. What does this mean on a day when I’m overstuffed with bread and should give up carbohydrates and gluten altogether? The bread of peace. The bread of faith and courage. The daily supply of your love. Your presence.
Returning to the crest of the hill I look for the rainbow. I expect it to be there because it is always there when the conditions are right. It’s simple physics and geometry. The light of the rainbow is always present but it is only revealed by rain, a particular angle of the sun, and the right point of view. It is always a private revelation. The rainbow I see is for me alone. Others see rainbows too, but no one has seen the rainbows I have seen.
Thine is the kingdom, the power, and glory forever.
And there it is. The rainbow is revealed. Its end appears to be two miles away, off behind a line of trees, but the curtain of rain draws over me and now as I’m pelted by the warm morning rain, the end comes closer. Now it descends below the treetops. Now the rain is golden and I see the bow only dozens of feet away, now all around me. Something I’ve never seen before, though it’s been here all along.